There was this girl in my elementary school – let’s call her Natalie. Tall and beautiful with long light brown hair and an stately, strong build, Natalie was a “bully.” Many were afraid of Natalie – with good reason. Natalie was mean. Natalie knew how to intimidate and berate other girls, often to the point of tears. Throughout elementary school I don’t recall ever seeing Natalie smile. She appeared perpetually angry – even during recess and lunch. Although I was friends with Natalie’s younger sister, I avoided Natalie at all costs – she scared me.
I thought of Natalie when I read about All Star Transportation’s “Blue Shirt Day” as part of The World Day of Bullying Prevention. The tee shirts wouldn’t have intimidated Natalie. Like Zero Tolerance, they may heighten awareness and incite discussion. However, the root of the issue – the root of what drove a girl like Natalie to bully – remains left to fester.
What I’m able to understand now, as a parent of three, that I was not able to understand in elementary school, is the impact the death of Natalie’s father had on Natalie, her two younger sisters and her mother. Natalie was four at the time; her sisters, two and six months. Their mother, in a blink, found herself a single mother of three small children suddenly thrust back into the workforce.
Natalie’s behavior in elementary school was wrong. To be the brunt of a bully’s aggression is traumatic. A kid who is compelled to bully others, however, will find a way to do it regardless of zero tolerance or everyone around them sporting blue tee shirts.
Indeed, I know now from my ongoing friendship with Natalie’s younger sister, that when their father died, much of Natalie and her sister’s connection to their mother also died. While able to get back on her feet and technically, “function,” Natalie’s mother had little time or energy to reach out for the financial and emotional help she needed. Consequently, during much of Natalie and her sister’s childhood, their mom was emotionally and physically disconnected. As the eldest, Natalie particularly absorbed the home’s shift in climate and also took on a substantial amount of responsibility.
“The underlying problem,” writes Dr. Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On to Your Kids, “is not the behavior itself but the loss of the natural attachment hierarchy with adults in charge” When youngsters can no longer look to parents to orient by, they are reduced to instinct and impulse.”
Ironically, it’s a child’s dependence on and attachment to an adult which fosters that child’s healthy and confident independence. Loss of a vulnerable dependence on an adult can be devastating.
“Those who perceive bullying as a behavior problem think they can extinguish the behavior by imposing sanctions and consequences,” continues Dr. Neufeld. “Not only do the negative consequences fail to sink in but they fuel the frustration and alienate the bullies even more…until we see bullying as the attachment disorder it truly is, our remedies are unlikely to make much difference.”
In order to help her kids, Natalie’s mother needed help. While there are ample resources for teachers and for victims of bullies, there are far fewer for the other “victims” the ones less inclined to reach out – the bullies themselves and their families.
Natalie’s mother had only good intentions for her girls, however, as Dr. Neufeld states, “Children do not experience our intentions, no matter how heartfelt. They experience what we manifest in tone and behavior…No matter what unhappiness they may at times feel, children are not at risk for attacking themselves or others as long as they are able to lean on their parents, deal with what distresses them, and respond with the appropriate feelings of futility.”
Obviously not all "mean kids' suffer from a loss of attachment to their parents. Sometimes things happen - especially when kids get into cliques.
Properly dealt with, such situations can often be resolved. Ongoing bullying, though, the type that does not respond to a "quick fix," requires much deeper perspective.
I saw Natalie a few years ago at her mother’s funeral. She was fifty. The tall, beautiful and stately young girl had grown into a tall, beautiful and stately woman. Her long brown hair was now gray and cut short. Natalie never had children – her choice. She loved animals, however and had married a vet with whom she ran a practice. Still a bit distant, Natalie was gracious and kind. Her eyes had softened and I finally saw her smile. My husband, also an animal lover, enjoyed conversing with Natalie. At the service, Natalie and her sisters spoke eloquently of their mother with the compassionate insight and perspective only an adult can have about their mother’s journey.
When it was time to put our beloved cat, “Stuffie,” to sleep, my husband suggested we go to Natalie and her husband’s practice. Emotionally rattled as I had owned Stuffie for seventeen years, I almost turned around and left when upon seeing Natalie, I had a brief flashback to grammar school. While Natalie’s husband prepared Stuffie, Natalie put her arm around me and softly told me she would stay by my side throughout.